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Grand Portage (Gichi Onigamiing)

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Bird’s-eye view of the Grand Lodge on Grand Portage Bay

Bird’s-eye view of the Grand Lodge on Grand Portage Bay, ca. 2010s. Photograph by the National Park Service (public domain).

Grand Portage (Gichi Onigamiing) is both a seasonal migration route and the traditional site of an Ojibwe summer village on the northwestern shore of Lake Superior. In the 1700s, after voyageurs began to use it to carry canoes from Lake Superior to the Pigeon River, it became one of the most profitable trading sites in the region and a headquarters for the North West Fur Company.

Indigenous people have used the eight-and-a-half-mile pathway that connects the Pigeon River with Lake Superior since at least the beginning of the first millennium CE. Though the river provides the fastest route from the lake to inland forests, its lower twenty-one miles are full of rapids and waterfalls. To bypass this rough stretch, Indigenous travelers carried their canoes overland and entered the river at its easternmost navigable point. Ojibwe and other Anishinaabe people called the area—and still call it—Gichi Onigamiing, the great carrying place.

Around 1680, a group of Ojibwe people migrated westward along the northern shore of Lake Superior to Thunder Bay and, eventually, Grand Portage Bay. Gichi Onigamiing became a crucial part of their seasonal cycle, which was structured around the earth’s changes and their resource needs. During the winter, they lived in hunting camps at inland sites like Brule, Whitefish, and Arrow Lakes. In the spring, they moved to maple sugar camps before returning to summer villages at Gichi Onigamiing and other sites around Lake Superior. A white cedar tree (manito gizhigans: spirit little cedar tree) growing from the rocky shore on the eastern edge of Grand Portage Bay became a sacred landmark.

After Pierre de la Vérendrye landed at Gichi Onigamiing on August 22, 1731, the site grew into a major rendezvous point for the fur trade, and Europeans began to refer to it as Grand Portage. By 1784, the North West Fur Company was running two operations on the site: Fort Charlotte, at the western end of the portage, and Fort George, a trading depot at its eastern terminus. Company clerks expanded the depot to include, by 1793, sixteen wooden buildings: shops, private lodgings, a mess hall, an accounting office, and six storehouses, all surrounded by gated log palisades.

Activity at Grand Portage, as at other trading posts, followed a seasonal cycle. Only a few company employees stayed on site in winter to maintain buildings while the majority traveled to hunting and trapping sites. Every year in June, however, they reunited at Grand Portage for the Great Rendezvous, a two-month celebration with feasting, dancing, and socializing. There, Ojibwe hunters and trappers exchanged animal furs for traders’ goods like sugar, flour, tobacco, gunpowder, and guns.

Influential traders passed through Grand Portage and noted it in their journals, including David Thompson and Alexander Henry the Younger—both employees of the North West Company. The French-Ojibwe Collin family (Antoine and his sons Michel and Jean-Baptiste) worked in and around Grand Portage for over four decades, first for the North West Company (1790s–1821) and then for the Hudson Bay Company (1821–1830s).

Grand Portage’s heyday as a trading site arrived in the late 1790s, when the North West Company and its rival, the XY Company, competed most fiercely. Limited business resumed in 1821, when the Hudson’s Bay Company established a fort at Grand Portage Bay, and continued into the 1830s. By the 1840s, however, fur trading no longer promised large-scale profits, and companies abandoned their forts.

After the fur-trade era, Ojibwe people remained near Gichi Onigamiing. The first Treaty of La Pointe (1842) reserved the right of the Lake Superior and Mississippi River Ojibwe to use the portage. The second treaty of that name (1854) established the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, one of the seven federally recognized reservations of Ojibwe in Minnesota.

Between 1939 and 1940, workers employed by the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) reconstructed Grand Portage’s Great Hall on its original foundations. Twenty years later, the Grand Portage Ojibwe ceded 709.67 acres of their reservation to the National Park Service, allowing the site to become a National Monument on October 15, 1960. Fire destroyed the Great Hall on July 15, 1969, but the reconstructed palisades and East Gate remained intact. In 1974, a rebuilt Great Hall opened to the public.

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BWCA Wild. Portage from Lake Superior to the Pigeon River (The Grand Portage).
http://bwcawild.com/MiscellaneousPage/Portages/The-Grand-Portage.html

Gilman, Carolyn. The Grand Portage Story. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.

Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. A History of Kitchi Onigaming: Grand Portage and its People. Cass Lake, MN: Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, 1982.

Morriseau, Norval. Legends of My People, the Great Ojibway. Selwyn Dewdney, ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Morrison, George, as told to Margot Fortunato Galt. Turning the Feather Around: My Life in Art. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1998.

National Park Service. Grand Portage.
https://www.nps.gov/grpo/index.htm

National Park Service. Grand Portage: Administrative History.
https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/grpo/adhit.htm

Nelson, George. My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802–1804. Edited by Laura Peers and Theresa Schenck. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2002.

Nute, Grace Lee. The Voyageur. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987 (reprint).

——— . The Voyageur’s Highway. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002 (reprint).

Officialdata.org.
https://www.officialdata.org/1800-GBP-in-2018?amount=25000

Swan, Ruth, and Edward A. Jerome. “The Collin Family at Thunder Bay: A Case Study of Métissage.” Papers of the Twenty-Ninth Algonquian Conference 29 (December 1, 1998): 311–327.
https://ojs.library.carleton.ca/index.php/ALGQP/article/view/490/392

United States Census Bureau. American Fact Finder. Grand Portage Reservation and Off-Reservation Trust Land.
https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk

Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

White, Bruce M. “Grand Portage as a Trading Post: Patterns of Trade at ‘The Great Carrying Place.’” Report prepared for the National Park Service, September 2005.
https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/grpo1/fur_trade.pdf

Woolworth, Alan R. “The Great Carrying Place: Grand Portage.” In Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade, 110–115. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1982.

Related Images

Bird’s-eye view of the Grand Lodge on Grand Portage Bay
Bird’s-eye view of the Grand Lodge on Grand Portage Bay
British flag that flew at Grand Portage
British flag that flew at Grand Portage
Group of Ojibwe at Grand Portage
Group of Ojibwe at Grand Portage
Group of Ojibwe in front of a wigwam at Grand Portage
Group of Ojibwe in front of a wigwam at Grand Portage
Grand Portage Bay
Grand Portage Bay
Civilian Conservation Corps workers at Grand Portage
Civilian Conservation Corps workers at Grand Portage
Dedication of Grand Portage National Historic Site
Dedication of Grand Portage National Historic Site
Manito gizhigans (spirit little cedar tree)
Manito gizhigans (spirit little cedar tree)
Lake Superior and its border lakes
Lake Superior and its border lakes

Turning Point

In 1802, the North West Company builds Fort William (Kaministikwia) to replace its base of operations at Grand Portage. As a result, the volume of trading at Grand Portage begins to decline.

Chronology

ca. 0 CE

Indigenous people begin to follow a route that connects the Pigeon River with Lake Superior during their annual migration from summer villages to winter hunting camps.

late 1600s

Cree and Assiniboine people live near Gichi Onigamiing (the great carrying place) for a short time before migrating to the northwest.

ca. 1680

Ojibwe people migrate along the northern shore of Lake Superior to Thunder Bay and, eventually, Grand Portage Bay.

1730s

Mosoni (Moose Cree) people live near Gichi Onigamiing before migrating to the northwest, into present-day Canada.

1731

Pierre de la Vérendrye lands at Gichi Onigamiing on August 22. Though Pierre Esprit Radisson and Sieur de Groseilliers may have landed there in the 1600s, la Vérendrye is the first European whose use of the portage is documented.

1767

Jonathan Carver visits Gichi Onigamiing, now known to Europeans as Grand Portage. By this time, it is the site of a small Ojibwe summer village and attracts regular trading with the French.

1799

Alexander Mackenzie joins the XY Company, which becomes the primary competitor of the North West Company—by now headquartered at Grand Portage.

1799/1800

Over the winter, trade goods worth a total of over £25,000 (worth nearly three million in American dollars in 2018) pass through Grand Portage.

1802

The North West Company builds Fort William (Kaministikwia) to replace its base of operations at Grand Portage. Subsequent company business centers around Fort William.

1805

The XY Company abandons Grand Portage. After its departure, trading at the site declines.

1825

In the spring, American Fur Company trader George Johnston conducts a census of the Grand Portage Ojibwe. He counts nineteen men, sixteen women, and twenty-six children—a total of sixty-one people.

1836

The American Fur Company establishes a commercial fishing operation at Grand Portage. (In part because of the Panic of 1837, the operation remained active only until 1842.)

1854

The Lake Superior Ojibwe sign the second Treaty of La Pointe; the United States takes control of most of the Ojibwe land along the lake’s border and establishes the Grand Portage Indian Reservation.

1972

The first Rendezvous Days event attracts participants from the Grand Portage Reservation of Ojibwe, the Fort William First Nation, and the National Park Service, as well as residents from Fort William, Ontario (Thunder Bay).